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Publish and be cited! Impact Factors, Open Access, and the plight of peer review

This coming week (19-25 September) is Peer Review Week 2016, an international initiative that celebrates the essential and often undervalued activity of academic peer review. Launched last year by Sense about Science, ORCID, ScienceOpen and Wiley, Peer Review Week follows in the wake of two open letters from the academic community on the issue of peer review recognition. The first was from early career researchers in the UK to the Higher Education Funding Council for England in July, and the second from Australian academics to the Australian Research Council two years later.

Now in its second year, Peer Review Week is focusing on the issue of Peer Review recognition, its current coordinating committee including additional organisations such as AAAS, COPE, eLife, and the Royal Society and the Federation of European Microbiological Societies (FEMS). This focus stems from the fact that while perceived as important, peer review is often regarded as a secondary activity to publication by decision makers across the Higher Education and funding sectors. This is something that David Colquhoun, Professor of Pharmacology at the UK’s University College London, firmly attributed to the ‘publish or perish’ culture imposed by “research funders and senior people in universities” some years ago.

It’s a view echoed in the preliminary findings of one of two new surveys on peer review, the first released by FEMS as part of this week’s activities, which reveals that, at least among the global microbiology community, authors subject to peer review perceive greater professional development benefits from the process than do the people carrying out the reviews. And what lies at the heart of this – and is clear from Colquhoun’s comments – is the influence of Eugene Garfield’s infamous journal “Impact Factor”. For in practice it is not so much publications, as citations, that are held in such high regard. Indeed without citations, says Nature blog’s Richard van Noorden, a publication may be regarded as “practically useless”.

This view that work must be cited by scientific authors in order to be of social or economic value is at odds with the thinking of the UK and Dutch governments, the European Union, Max Planck and other proponents of Open Access publishing who are keen to ensure that primary literature reaches “the taxpayer”, entrepreneurs, and innovators. The anticipation is that wider access will lead to greater innovation – specifically in relation to the creation of jobs and services, and the provision of solutions to problems. This conflicts with the traditional model of attributing academic value to citations in that while these newly targeted end-users might derive benefit from accessing the primary literature, they do not engage in the activity of writing – and therefore citing – scientific articles.

"Scientific Review." Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
“Scientific Review.” Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

But whether you’re trying to attract citation by academics or translation by innovators, scientific quality control is key. Indeed, Peder Olesen Larsen and Markus von Ins would argue that what makes a scientific publication a serious one, is not citation but peer review. This latter can have several functions, including assessing “sound science” as practiced by Open Access mega journals like PLOS One and Springer Plus, established to publish the findings of any research that adheres to given methodological standards. The thinking behind this is several-fold, but includes avoiding duplicating unproductive lines of inquiry, and cascading “out of scope” articles from specialist to broad-scope journals, to circumvent multiple time-consuming rounds of review. In other forms of peer review, scientific content – not just science per se – may be assessed for a particular function, including the likelihood of getting cited.

Given that increasing investment in science globally means ever greater scientific outputs (particularly across the fast-growing knowledge economies of Asia and Latin America), all forms of peer review are currently facing limited capacity. Seeking practical solutions to some of these concerns, a second survey published this week, this time conducted by PRE (Peer Review Evaluation), a programme of the AAAS,  looks at how new developments in peer review might be delivered. For example, an earlier survey from Wiley-Blackwell showed that 77% of researchers expressed an interest in peer review training. The PRE survey takes this a step further, exploring how such training might be implemented. What would it consist of? Who would pay for it? And how would it be delivered?

Such training would certainly have the potential to increase the international reviewer pool, effectively spreading the load. But institutions that do not recognize peer review as a “core” academic activity might be reluctant to invest in training their staff or have them provide reviews, as part of their job. Australian researchers had a good answer to this back in 2014, as expressed in their open letter to the Australian Research Council requesting that peer review targets be set alongside existing publication targets (see Meadows 2015b). It’s a simple enough ask in principle, and would have the immediate effect of addressing the balance between peer review and publication. And while it might sound ambitious in practice, this – led by leading research funders and a handful of national governments – is exactly what happened with Open Access.

Our hope is that by building on the events and discussion around Peer Review Week, this critical issue will equally start to get more meaningful attention, and to push peer review up the science policy agenda.

You can join in the conversation about Peer Review Week 2016 via the hashtags #PeerRevWk16 and #RecognizeReview, and by following @OxfordJournals and @FEMSTweets on Twitter.

Featured image credit: Writing-hands by Senlay. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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